Conversations hiding in plain sight


Sanjana Hattotuwa

Sri Lanka is many things. Yet arguably apart for a brief time after the cricket world cup final in 1996, one country it is not and has never been. Variously projected and perceived as strength in diversity or a bone of contention, many imagined nations within the 65,610 square kilometres of our island coalesce and converge, as much as they grow distant and diverge. These existential fears and myths are rich fodder for parochial, political gain. Mahinda Rajapaksa just last week said that one of the problems the country faces is that Sinhalese Buddhists don’t have nine to ten children anymore, and are thus facing extinction because of the artificial imposition of birth control. His comments, at a Temple and aimed at the sangha, flows into an explosive yet factually unfounded trope where another community in Sri Lanka is said to be increasing their progeny at an exponential rate, given their ability to marry more than one woman, thus a few decades hence, encroaching on and ultimately ruling Buddha’s chosen land.

Discriminated against in ways incomprehensible to those who aren’t subject to it daily, violently subjugated and even post-war, militarily corralled communities are fighting for their dignity and identity, even as those projected and perceived as the majority community, based on numeric strength, have deep rooted, enduring and growing existential fears around their own future. Consuming in English a lone media – both mainstream or social – masks pulsating drivers and changing contours of these distinct nations, each vying for geographic or territorial contiguity as well as legitimacy. If as we know the country has a youth bulge in its electorate, with those between 18 to 34 constituting the majority of the vote base in all elections to come, understanding how they see, stand aside from and also contribute to this idea of a country called Sri Lanka is important.

Imagine, if you will, an old fountain pen and blotting paper. Imagine three of our points of contact where fresh ink leaks to paper, and the stain that spreads across it, creating a unique pattern or design. If in close proximity, these blots will merge and eat into each other, darkening the overlap even as they create upon close inspection, embedded, distinct edges within each other’s pattern or spread. The initial point of contact with fountain pen will be darker than the edges, where the ink has run out. Depending on pressure, viscosity of ink, time of contact and other factors, each ink blot will have its distinct signature. Social media in Tamil, Sinhala and English are like ink blots. Each blossom and bloom around specific issues, at various times, and differently too, depending on which platform one is looking at.

Twitter, for example, has a different dynamic around pace, tone, substance and attention than Facebook. These are called technical affordances – things that each platform allow a user to do. Facebook for example allows longer descriptions and a range of reactions. Twitter does not. Instagram, anchored to photography, offers, quite literally, a frame as a way to look at the world. Depending on platform, the conversations and foci also shift. But there’s more to this. For decades, Sinhala, Tamil and English mainstream media have offered very different frames of the same country. Depending on which media one consumes, during and even after the war, the perception of country, its faults as well as its potential, is vastly, often irreconcilably different. The democratising use, unstoppable spread and indubitable appeal of social media, for a younger demographic, one would imagine would move away from this corrosive bias and prejudice.

Tellingly, there is no discernible evidence, however, that it does.

Take the sentencing of Gnanasara Thero. Twenty four hours after the judgement in courts, it was Facebook that was the key driver of news around the Thero, in Sinhala. Gossip sites overwhelmed anything mainstream news sites put out, across social media but especially on Facebook. As I noted at the time on social media, a quick scan of the posts across many public pages highlighting the incarceration revealed a world full of grief, hate, bile, revenge, violence, misogyny and almost outright support for the Thero to the vicious, venomous condemnation of everything and everyone else. It was a different universe from commentary and responses in English, over Twitter, celebrating the judgement and supporting Sandya Eknaligoda. A black flag protest had begun on Facebook, with many choosing to change their profile image with a black flag or the image of the Thero. Videos uploaded to Facebook by young men, including young priests, called upon the Sinhalese rise up, fight, take up arms against a grave injustice and insult to the Sasana, Buddhism and the Sinhalese (not necessarily in that order). Even more humbling was the realisation that looking at this organic generation and spread of bile, the anxiety, anger and fear captured therein was deep-rooted and unaddressed by policymakers, or even civil society.

I revisited the issue and the data around a week after, just before the Thero was given bail. My focus was on Sinhala as well as English, looking at Twitter and Facebook. In Sinhala, multiple spellings of the Thero’s name were used to make ensure I captured as much of the public discussion as possible. I discovered 124 Facebook pages highlighting the Thero’s incarceration, generating 105 posts, viewed around 430,000 times. On Facebook, you can also share content and like it, both of which potentially places the original material on the news feeds of friends. It is thus probable that this content reached hundreds of thousands more, at the very least, over just one week. Content ranged from hurt and sadness to more strident calls for all Sinhalese-Buddhists to rise up and fight at a historic moment. Over same time, there were just 13 discrete accounts on Twitter highlighting the Thero. The most engaging post on Facebook was around 187 times more actively liked or shared than the most retweeted (or shared content) on Twitter. Clearly, Facebook, especially in Sinhala, and not Twitter in any language, is the primary vector of political news and information for a young demographic in Sri Lanka.

Like ink blots, each language had its primary audience, and while there was some overlap, much of the content was geared to stoke up or resonate with pre-existing fears. Revealingly, a week after the Thero’s judgement, mainstream news accounts on Facebook had taken over content generation from gossip sites. One leading private TV channel in particular ran a number of videos very clearly and almost completely partial to the Thero, generating tens of thousands of views cumulatively. Thus, while gossip sites are quick to disseminate news and information, in deeply problematic ways, they are also quick to move on. Even over social media, what drives deep-seated communal and religious prejudice seem to be, based on a study of Gnanasara Thero’s brief sojourn in prison and reporting around it on Facebook and Twitter, mainstream media’s accounts or presence. This is a far cry from what our President and politicians often decry as a bunch of racists abusing social media to spread misinformation and hate.

The same patterns are visible around the form and substance of Sinhala and English language content anchored to the Asgiriya’s Thero’s comments on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Interestingly, across both episodes, content in Sinhala by the sangha or featuring the sangha, deeply critical of the Buddha Sasana or a particular thero, generates comparably less views but also attracts, by order of magnitude, far less venom and vicious pushback. There may be a lesson here, or many. There are certainly warning signs for those who aren’t deeply attentive to the fluid contours of popular, public discourse over social media vectors that are today centre and forward in shaping political opinion.

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